The anti-science of the Greens is a political strategy

The anti-science position of the greens on GMOs,  fracking and nuclear power, is itself political tool used to whip up fear.

One of the most bizarre things about debating anti-GMOers is the complete lack of interest in facts. Claims of health risks, links to farmer suicides in India or that Terminator genes are being used to control the global food supply and wipe out humanity are bandied about without the slightest regard for whether they are actually true or not.

For example in a recent debate on Facebook I was drawn into (I was warned by the host to be on my best behaviour and only posted useful links) there was mention on the recent pig feeding trials which claimed to show toxicity from GMOs. I posted a link to Mark Lynas’ discussion of this study, which, apart from exposing the flaws of the study, showed that the lead author is an activist and also connected to Seralini. This was the response:

Ah MArk Lynas – a paragon of common sense – the green turncoat of the nuclear and gm debate – ok well i see where this is going – you’re confidence in the science is laudable and Lynas is working for the other side… goodbye

So this is not about “science” or “facts” or “evidence” or any such- but about taking sides. Lynas is discredited because he has jumped ship and works for the Enemy; the handy thing about this position is that you don’t need to discuss the rights and wrongs of any of the issues.

This throws some light on Alice Bell’s recent article in the Guardian’s series on Science and the Greens Can you be sceptical about GM but believe in climate change?.

There is a lot to take issue with in this article but the paragraph that caused the most reaction below the line is

It’s also a lot easier for the GM lobby to play a game of “you are wrong on science” rather than acknowledging that the bulk of the critique against them is economic and political.

An example of this actually happening would be helpful- I have never seen a coherent critique of GM crops based on economic and political issues- concerns about corporations holding too much control on our food supply for example- that does not also play fast and loose with the actual evidence on things like food safety and efficacy of the technology.

What Bell fails to acknowledge is that most anti-GMO sentiment is in fact based on fear and distrust of science and scientists- the “Frankenfood” meme. Crazy unaccountable boffins in white suits meddling with Nature creating new traits that bring no benefits to anyone other than evil corporations who are portrayed as immoral drug dealers trying to get the poor and disenfranchised hooked for filthy lucre. Food + Profit + Science = Terror. The problem is, as Bjorn Lomborg points out effectively I think in his film Cool It! with regard to climate change, people who are scared- especially about things that are as personal as the food they eat and give their children- are not likely to be thinking very rationally. The emotional state of fear is in direct opposition to a careful consideration of and weighing up facts and evidence.

There is no doubt that people really do get genuinely scared about these things, and this affects their judgement and pretty much precludes them being open to evidence. An applicant to my course told me at the interview that they were applying because of concerns about global problems; when I asked which in particular, she said “Monsanto’s Terminator Seeds”. I pointed out there were none- “Oh come on, there must be!!” I think it is sad that people wake up each morning concerned about completely non-existent threats, but it seems that it is very hard to redress these fears with facts and information alone.

Activists know very well how to use fear to help their cause. Alice Bell also fails to acknowledge this- that the anti-GM movement cynically uses fear about food health safety to garner support- which leads to illegal acts of scientific sabotage. There is in fact a co-ordinated and quite deliberate, massively well-funded campaign of fear-mongering and misinformation, which feeds the mistrust and suspicion of science and scientists, and without which any political or economic argument would simply be unable to gain any traction. Political arguments tend to simply claim that under a capitalist system you cannot trust scientists, who are ultimately influenced in their research by corporate funders- which seems to be what Bell herself is also implying not-very-subtely in the same quote above.

Activist movements tend not to be very subtle. It has to be all or nothing. Nuance does not an effective Direct Action make. To oppose GM crops, to have people ready to break the law to destroy research, they have to be completely demonised. That is why facts and evidence can play no role. This is why the movement is inherently anti-science. If it was acknowledged that GM crops are safe to eat, that would more than somewhat take the wind out of the activists’ sails.

There is some debate as to whether people are really “anti-science” or just selective with their use of science, but this is a false distinction: being selective IS anti-science. Taking an approach that attacks and undermines and tries to physically prevent science from taking place is clearly anti-science. The claim that there is some kind of distinct political objection to GMOs is false: rather, and this is the point I think that Bell misses in her analysis, an anti-science position, which rejects the results of verifiable experiments, is itself used quite deliberately for political purposes; in fact, it forms the strategic foundation of the anti-GMO movement.

The anti-science position of the greens on GMOs,  fracking, nuclear power and apocalyptic climate alarmism is itself political tool used to whip up fear. Fear then chases away rational analysis and shuts the door on science. This has proved a hugely successful positive feedback strategy (although on climate it may be suffering from diminishing returns).

Furthermore, the anti-GMO movement is largely funded by Big Organic and Big Quacka- the Seralini study was funded and co-authored by a homeopathic group. Many rank-and-file anti-GMO supporters completely buy into this level of pseudo-science, a rejection of the validity of the scientific method in and of itself. I have debated with homeopaths and biodynamic/organic advocates many times who are not in the least but shy of taking this most extreme and explicit of anti-science positions:

-”Science doesnt know everything”
-”Science is only one way of knowing”
-”Science is reductionist and biased”
-”There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

-and other such relativist/mystical positions.

What is most interesting about this whole issue is I think that suspicion of Big Science- a fear that it has become unaccountable, undemocratic and too powerful- is shared by many climate skeptics also. According to Warren Pearce in another piece from the same Guardian series, this may be with more good reason:

One of the most contentious issues arising from Climategate was the effort to withhold from publication data subjected to freedom of information requests. When physicist Phil Moriarty challenged these practices as being outside of accepted scientific standards, he was lauded by numerous commenters on the Bishop Hill sceptic blog as a “real scientist”.

Most climate “sceptics” it should be noted do not fall into the category of “pseudoscience” -unlike many organic supporters of the anti-GMO movement- but rather call for a genuine, scientifically sceptical approach to a very different kind of scientific question: the safety of GMO crops is readily verified through repeatable feeding trials, which if open and transparent fall into the category of good, classic scientific method. Noone has produced evidence that scientists have falsified experiments or withheld data on such trials or that the results have been manipulated.

Not so with climate science which as Pearce points out cannot be falsified in the Popperian sense. Most climate skeptics do not take issue with the verifiable results showing the “Greenhouse” effect of CO2, but of the fear-mongering that has been prevalent in the climate debate leading to irrational – anti-science?- policies which cannot in themselves address the issues in any case (such as Kyoto-style international treaties.)

Climate scientist Tamsin Edwards adds a fascinating comment on this debate in her piece in the Guardian series in which she calls for climate scientists to stick to the facts and the science and avoid drifting into specific policy recommendations. “I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral.” She goes on to conclude:

I became a climate scientist because I’ve always cared about the environment, since a vivid school talk about the ozone layer (here, page 4) and the influence of my brother, who was green long before it was cool. But I care more about restoring trust in science than about calling people to action; more about improving public understanding of science so society can make better-informed decisions, than about making people’s decisions for them. Science doesn’t tell us the answer to our problems. Neither should scientists.

I think this is a crucial, stunning contribution, which should go a long way to addressing concerns on both anti-GM activists and climate sceptics: if we focus on public understanding of science, and not worry so much on what the public will do with that information or which policy they will go for, then fears of scientist-activists or industry shills might gradually abate. The big losers will be those who use the anti-science of fear for political ends- be it climate alarmism or scare stories about Frankenfoods.

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12 Comments

  1. Yeah, that’s better stated than I put it in the reply at Bell’s piece. But I think that for the elite academic-type greens the underlying objections are also economic and political (whether they are coherent or legit is a separate issue)–but they are wrapping these objections in a faux-science veneer because they can’t actually win on the real science. And they are claiming they aren’t anti-science while simultaneously working to prevent the science from proceeding–because the outcome is not going to go their way if they let the actual science happen.

    Reply
    • Absolutely correct- and they are more than happy to capitalise on all the hard fear-mongering the activists have been doing to further their agenda, which in any case, as you say on the Guardian blog, making not-so-subtle suggestions of scientists as shills (which I file under the “we can’t trust this technology under capitalism” section- they dont want such technology because it would make capitalism look half-way useful!).

      Reply
  2. Foster Boondoggle

     /  August 1, 2013

    I’m really puzzled at the lumping of people concerned about AGW with the anti-GMO’ers. You write “Most climate skeptics do not take issue with the verifiable results showing the “Greenhouse” effect of CO2″. But they do. Especially the ones in positions of political power. And it is this skepticism that permits the average joe who doesn’t want to be bothered about changing his lifestyle — paying slightly more at the gas pump or not driving a Hummer — to dismiss the whole thing. Because how many people actually understand the physics of IR radiation and molecular vibrational bands?

    It is manifestly the climate-skeptic position that is anti-science, and in exactly the way you describe. Ignore the preponderance of research, cherry pick studies or sample data — e.g., pick a starting point for looking at recent trends that *just happens* to coincide with a peak temperature year, or throw up smokescreens based on a hard-to-calibrate study of upper atmosphere temperature data — and accuse the scientists of being dishonest — of just wanting to keep the research funds flowing so they can live the high-end life of a researcher.

    It’s certainly possible that the political advocacy based on AGW fears gets overblown sometimes, insofar as we don’t really know exactly what the consequences will be at any given point on the planet (though we have a good idea) and how hard it will be to adjust. But we know that the implications are large on the macro scale, and anyone who doubts that is taking the anti-science position. The best scientific evidence we have is that we’re in for a world of trouble if we don’t reduce our carbon footprint. There’s no homeopathy or frankenwoo about it.

    Reply
    • Did you read Warren Pearce’s piece?

      “Most climate skeptics do not take issue with the verifiable results showing the “Greenhouse” effect of CO2″. But they do. Especially the ones in positions of political power

      can you give an example or two? eg see this discussion on the “consensus”: What’s behind the battle of received wisdoms?

      I disagree. Even the fringe pseudoscience skepticism probably plays a minimal role if any in preventing support for climate action. See my review of the Age of Global Warming.

      On the other hand it is easy to find examples of activist psuedo-science designed to drum up alarmism, eg I give some examples here and here and here. Basically, I argue that climate alarmism is (often) just as anti-science as anti-GMO-alarmism, and comes from largely the same constituency.

      we know that the implications are large on the macro scale, and anyone who doubts that is taking the anti-science position. The best scientific evidence we have is that we’re in for a world of trouble if we don’t reduce our carbon footprint

      we are not going to reduce our carbon footprint anytime soon (only the US have reduced emissions recently, by switching to shale gas, not by ditching their hummers) – nor will we ever have effective international treaties. A different approach is needed, one that rejects the pseudoscientific alarmism which at this stage is highly counter-productive, and one that is honest about all the uncertainties.

      Reply
      • Foster Boondoggle

         /  August 2, 2013

        I read Pearce’s piece. You quote his unfortunate mention of Popper’s dictum, which now seems to represent the be-all and end-all of “is it science” argumentation for many people. Huge swathes of science as practiced by actual scientists don’t fit the “falsifiable hypothesis” picture in the version you describe, which really only reflects experimental science. So in this version are paleontology and cosmology not sciences? Evolutionary biology? What do you call the kind of thing that Stephen J. Gould did? Or the Planck mission researchers? Tests of inflationary cosmology are highly indirect, and obviously not experimentally testable, but you’ll be making a very odd claim to call it unscientific.

        Climate science has a laboratory experiment component, but it also has a component that involves heavy-duty computer models. Your objection to calling this work “science”, as far as I understand it (aside from the Popper argument), is that the uncertainties in the models are large and they are hard to test. Neither of those objections makes this work unscientific. It’s just difficult. But there are many models out there, developed more or less independently by many teams, and they all predict continuation of the rapidly rising temperatures already found by Mann et. al.

        You write “we are not going to reduce our carbon footprint anytime soon”. Well, that’s automatically true if we take the view that because there are uncertainties therefore we should do nothing. But there is nothing except political will standing in the way of taking steps, perhaps initially modest ones, such as carbon taxes and tariffs. We were in the same position with respect to the fluorocarbons and the ozone hole 20+ years ago, yet the Montreal protocol was widely ratified. Obviously that’s a narrower problem than our entire energy economy, but still: international agreements are possible.

        Regarding your “name two” question: My view is somewhat US-centric, but there’s absolutely no shortage of “skeptical” politicians. For example, Joe Barton, Dana Rohrbacher and James Inhofe. I put the word in quotes because of course true inquiry-based skepticism has nothing to do with their positions. Barton and Inhofe are rep/senator from fossil-fuel extraction areas. Rohrbacher is just a traditional American-style right-winger who represents people who don’t want to be told that their style of conspicuous consumption is not sustainable and imposes costs on others.

        There is nothing pseudoscientific about expressing alarm when it appears that we are creating a world that will be very different from the one that saw in the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Scientists are people, and their fears are legitimately grounded in their work and knowledge. If they can’t be alarmed about foreseeable change, who can? Or should we all just carry on with a postmodern attitude that all truth is relative and no one really “knows” anything, so what-me-worry?

        Reply
        • There is nothing pseudoscientific about expressing alarm

          well, that is the subject of Tamsin Edwards post (did you read it?) ie should scientists step out of their role of purely expressing the science- what we know and dont know- with specific policy recommendations- or whether this should be left to democratic processes and policy makers. Many people feel that a problem arises if activist-scientists begin to exaggerate in order to promote a specific policy response.
          Note how you drift rather seamlessly from discussion of Popper (this issue btw is how confident can we be of past temperature reconstructions, how verifiable they are and how politicized they may be, not whether the endeavor in an of itself is scientific or not, of course it is) into advocacy of a specific policy (which has already been shown to have failed, basically achieving nothing at huge cost).

          There are other approaches on the table- eg Hartwell; Lomborg’s advocacy of focusing more on clean energy reduction R & D rather than emissions reductions; and there is the question of geo-engineering (inc CCS), adaptation and so on, all of which hinge on just how bad we think AGW will end up being (answer: we dont know). Unlike Planck mission researchers, there really are many very real uncertainties in aspects of future climate change (see Judith Curry:

          The definition of climate change consensus is now so fuzzy that leading climate change skeptics are categorizing themselves within the 97%. IPCC and other leading climate scientists can’t agree on the cause of the lack of surface temperature increase for the past 15+ years (i.e. see the recent article in the New Republic)

          .);

          while Gould’s work I understand has been subject to cogent criticism (Dawkins?), and evolutionary biology is about the past (or are there computer models that have accurate predictions of the future course of evolution?).

          There is nothing pseudoscientific about expressing alarm when it appears that we are creating a world that will be very different from the one that saw in the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.

          The point is this is not a scientific question alone; “very different…” is not a very scientific formulation, and does not in itself lead to alarm; whether you feel “alarm” depends very much on your philosophy and perspective, eg we have obviously already changed the world to a very great degree before the industrial revolution through farming etc, including changing the weather on regional scales. How alarming is this? Well, my view is that a great deal of the alarm on AGW come not from Pure Science (the mathematical proofs of an inflationary universe for example) but are greatly influenced by “Balance-of-Nature” eco-philosophies (which believe there is a steady-state of Nature -including the atmosphere- which should not be deviated from).

          One of the main problems in the climate debate is that it has been framed as :”believers” and “deniers” -perfectly reasonable differences on policy have been sidelined as if they were pseudo-science, which is why climate policy is failing- the developing world will never follow rich countries’ emissions’ reductions targets unless they feel they can afford it (see Darwell)- NOT because of climate “deniers”. So anything that looks like it will reduce emissions- windmills and biofuels- are promoted at great cost even though they will do nothing.

          That is the problem with alarmism- it doesnt lead to constructive policies, or rational behaviour.

          Reply
  3. Yes, you can, per Bell’s piece. Many people like me have said what she does: our primary concerns are economic and political. And, people like me also don’t like getting stereotyped over this issue. Call me an anti-GMOer-as-currently-marketed, if you insist on a label.

    That said:

    Some of us do, also, have legitimate science-related questions without believing in “Frankenfoods.” @ Christopher Leach: I think questions about “degree of separation” of the source of the gene and the target food is a legitimate matter. I think the question of whether food allergies can “transfer” is legitimate, as some research indicates this is possible. And, given that “one gene = one protein” is dead, questions about “gene context” and also about epigenetics are legitimate. These may turn out to not be of huge concern, but some of them may still be of mild, or moderate, concern.

    In other words, not every scientific question everybody asks about GMOs is an anti-GMO question.

    And, let’s not trot out the claim the other way around that “we’ve been manipulating plants for millennia.” Because, before GMOs, those manipulations were only within that genus.

    Reply
    • Not really; genes “jump” even between species in Nature more commonly than you might think- see here. DNA is pretty much the same kind of stuff across species.

      Eating food is risky- people have died from eating organic food contaminated with E.coli- which may be more of a hazard in organics of course because of use of manures.

      There are no, zero, documented cases of negative health effects from eating GMOs; nor is there any plausible biological reason why they should be more risky than crops produced from any other breeding method. Traditional breeding has on occasion produced unintended toxicity, see this article by Pam Ronald.

      If anything, GMOs are a more precise and therefore safer method- and they are certainly more stringently regulated.

      Reply
      • mikkel

         /  September 9, 2013

        I think GMOs have the potential to be one of the best inventions that humanity has ever created; a few steps behind antibiotics. There is huge potential for them to contribute to organic (non-fossil fuel based) agriculture and should be commended.

        However, the way they are actually being applied is atrocious, just like for antibiotics.

        In both cases, the technology is being used to perpetuate monocultures and reductionist thinking, instead of being one of a myriad of techniques to create a better whole. This is why they are both causing massive pest evolution and resistance.

        Now Monsanto is looking at iRNA, which is pretty terrifying considering we know almost nothing about it. Maybe they took it down (this is the only link I could find, which seems like an OK use) but last year they were talking about using it to attack insect genetic expression. Since genes “jump” (particularly iRNA) this could potentially have catastrophic ecological impacts.

        Since GM is a technique, being anti GM is like being anti-terrorist; a nearly worthless bromide. But approving of how it’s being implemented is foolish, and the potential idiocy, boundless.

        Reply
        • “In both cases, the technology is being used to perpetuate monocultures and reductionist thinking, instead of being one of a myriad of techniques to create a better whole.”

          What exactly do you mean by monoculture? I keep hearing this all the time and no one seems to have a clue what they actually mean. It seems more like a the cool buzzword going around.

          It’s a Strawman from the Anti-GMO advocates to say that GMO is the only solution. No pro-GMO person or farmer I know would ever say that. GMO is a technology that is definitly needed to add to our arsenal. It’s not a panacea. The anti’s constantly claim that GMO proponants claim it’s a panacea…it’s not. It’s never claimed to be.

          Reply
  4. acknowledge much of what you say. I hate people dismissing an argument as being from a ‘shill’ because it’s from a scientist. It really concerns me how anti-GM people tend to muddy or ignore the science, quoting outdated studies and engaging only emotionally. It has led to a very polarised debate, where people on the pro-GM side are so used to opponents not engaging with the science they start to get away with saying there is a scientific consensus that all GM crops are safe, and all scientifically literate people agree, making anyone who doubts their safety an anti-science kook.

    This kind of polarised debate propagates a problem you repeat here: lumping all GM crops into one category, which you can only be for or against. But golden rice is not Bt corn. Many GM crops may be as safe as any naturally produced hybrid, but using plants to produce pharmaceuticals may result in unpredictable impacts on human and animal health.

    Concerns about specific crops and technologies can validly be taken on to concern about all GM when the major exponent nation of the technology the USA has not instituted the kind of tracibility that supports long term research on health effects – or could support disentangling GM corn or soy from their supply network if unforseeable problems occur. Unforseeables are not impossible – DDT casts a long shadow that underlines the need to look hard and long, not just in the lab but in the field, and to keep looking even after we think a technology like it is safe.

    Here’s is a discussion of the economic and political side of GM only, pretty much http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/15/us-eu-trade-deal-monsanto-crops

    Reply
  1. Gazette AFIA #34

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